The Next Covert Operation in Iran

A Dangerous miscalculation.

Image for post
Image for post
The reactor building Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran in October 2010. AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented visit to Saudi Arabia, facilitated by Secretary of State Pompeo, is all about coordination: a possible covert operation, potentially targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities. For the Saudis, time is running out. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will have more to lose from the US rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, and ending the war in Yemen.

On one hand, while Netanyahu desires a conflict to kill the JCPOA, the cost of a direct strike is too high. Iran-backed groups are positioned in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. This encirclement serves as a deterrent against a direct Israeli attack on the Iranian mainland. On the other hand, while Iran hawks in Washington prefer a last-minute conflict to prevent the revival of the deal, a direct American strike will be too costly: translating to political suicide for “America First” Republicans.

According to the New York Times, the White House has so far ruled out an overt American operation. For the Trump team, the only remaining solution seems to be outsourcing the implementation of any covert operation to its allies in the region. In this light, Israeli and US officials are most likely in Riyadh to provide their assurances to MBS, hoping for no Iranian retaliation prior to Jan. 20th. This development helps explain the recent US regional posturing vis-à-vis sending in the B-52s.

Europe is well-aware of these possible miscalculations. European officials have recently met to discuss cooperation with the Biden team on preserving the JCPOA. According to the Guardian, German officials are already considering Europe’s response amid a possible strike against Iran. It remains to be seen if the Biden camp can prevent Israeli and Saudi attempts to derail the next administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran.

Meanwhile, Iranians have been bracing for impact. Last week, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence released documents that blamed Saudi Arabia for the 2018 Ahvaz military parade terrorist attack. Last night, Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacked Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s main oil facility. The timing is no accident. Iran is conveying a warning: any covert operation in Iran will trigger a quick overt Iran-led retaliation. Tehran will quickly blame one of the US’ regional allies. Against this background, Iran’s leadership will most likely assess that the Saudis are an easier target and are less likely to retaliate. At last, it is imperative to note that while Iran has ordered its allies to stand down, the defeat of Trump has increased its risk tolerance. Will we see yet another dangerous miscalculation in the region?

Research Associate @ The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy I UBC Alumnus | Advocate for Diplomacy | Interested in Int’l Security & Sustainable Development.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store